Reform of the House of Lords – Whither the Bishops?

According to media reports, the Government is once again contemplating radical reform of the House of Lords, bringing in a fully-elected chamber. Such a move would inevitably spell the end to the presence there of the 26 Church of England bishops sitting as the lords spiritual.

Would such a move be welcomed in the court of public opinion? The most recent survey of a representative sample of British adults on the subject was conducted by ComRes for the BBC’s ‘Heaven and earth’ programme in July 2007.

Views were then fairly evenly divided on the continued presence of the bishops in the House of Lords, 48% agreeing and 43% disagreeing. In the event that the episcopal presence was to be maintained, 65% thought that the entitlement to sit in the upper chamber should also be extended to non-Anglican religious leaders.

But what of Parliamentarians? Would they support any legislative measure to unseat the bishops? Unfortunately, no recent survey of the attitudes of MPs appears to have been carried out. However, there have been two ComRes peers’ panel surveys.

The first, in November-December 2008, revealed 45% of peers in favour of the status quo for the lords spiritual and 44% desiring change. Tory peers were overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the current arrangements, Labour and Liberal Democrat ones most enthusiastic for reform. 22% of peers argued that there should be absolutely no representation in the House of Lords on the basis of faith, Christian or otherwise, the proportion rising to one in two among Labour and Liberal Democrat peers.

The second peers’ panel, in June-July 2009, found 54% agreeing that religious representation in the House of Lords should reflect the faith composition of the country as a whole, with 33% disagreeing. There were no major differences in response by political allegiance. The number wanting to see religious representation phased out had risen to 28% and was again especially high among Labour and Liberal Democrat peers.

As for the Church of England itself, according to a questionnaire completed by readers of the Church Times in March-April 2001, 82% of the churchgoing laity and 76% of the clergy support the continued presence of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords.

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